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Washington University School of Medicine researchers might have found what was previously considered to be the holy grail of Alzheimer’s disease research. A recent study by the school’s Bateman Lab confirms that, when combined with age and genetic risk factors, a new blood test is highly accurate in identifying Alzheimer’s before symptoms arise. First author Dr. Suzanne Schindler explains what this discovery means for the future of treatment and medication.

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Dr. Suzanne Schindler

How does this blood test identify Alzheimer’s disease?

People start developing the brain changes of Alzheimer’s disease about 20 years before the onset of symptoms. This blood test is looking for these brain changes. If you have amyloid plaques [protein clumps that destroy connections between nerve cells] in your brain, some of the amyloid that would normally get into your blood does not – it stays in your brain – so the blood test measures that ratio that is associated with whether you have these amyloid plaques in your brain or not.

Why are the findings of this study so significant compared to other research?

There have been a lot of drug trials of Alzheimer’s disease that have failed, and we think they failed because we treated the disease too late. It’s kind of like starting someone on a blood pressure medicine after they’ve had three heart attacks. The problem is that currently, the way they’re doing this is that they do an amyloid PET [positron emission tomography] scan, and it works very well, but it’s very expensive and availability is pretty limited.

For probably a decade, a blood test for Alzheimer’s disease was referred to somewhat jokingly as the holy grail of Alzheimer’s disease because we knew that it would help our ability to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, and it would speed up the progress of finding a drug for Alzheimer’s disease. There used to be a big gap in performance between blood tests, cerebral spinal taps and amyloid PET [scans], but now that gap is pretty narrow.

How will this test change clinical approaches to treating Alzheimer’s patients?

In the next couple of years, I primarily see this being helpful in speeding up the development of drugs for Alzheimer’s disease. Also, for example, right now I probably do cerebral spinal fluid analysis on maybe 5 to 10 percent of my patients. But I think if there were a blood test available, I might do it on 80 percent of my patients, just because the risk-benefit equation is very different when you have a blood test versus a spinal tap.

When will this test be made available in doctors’ offices?

My guess is three to five years, but there’s a company founded by Dr. Randall Bateman and Dr. David Holtzman at Wash U, who are very aggressively developing this for commercialization, and they’ve gotten a Breakthrough Device designation by the FDA to speed up the process.

What is the next step for you in your research?

One thing that we’re interested in doing is just repeating this with not just hundreds but thousands of people. There’s still a lot of research to be done. 

Those interested in assisting the Bateman Lab with its current Alzheimer’s disease study should call 314-884-8452. Participants must be at least 60 years old.

Emily is LN's managing editor. She watches way too many movies, loves exploring new places and laughs too hard at her own jokes.